Yes, “Southpaw” includes boxing tropes we’ve seen before. That doesn’t mean it isn’t an entertaining look – a character study, in fact – about a man on a downward spiral and his broken family. And the solid performances all around make this an absorbing drama.
Director Antoine Fuqua also helmed the equally gritty “Training Day” and “The Equalizer.” This time, instead of Denzel Washington as the lead, we have Jake Gyllenhaal as a prizefighter with a dark side. He stars as Billy Hope, who along with his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) is raising their 11-year-old daughter Leila (Oona Laurence).
The physical sacrifices of boxing such as almost losing his left eye, are worth it to Billy, who has provided his family with a magnificent home and his daughter with private schooling. After the latest bout, Maureen encourages Billy to quit while they’re ahead … before he becomes punch-drunk.
But Billy is being egged on by a fight organizer (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and contender Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) who publicly tells Billy he wants his title. Tragedy ensues, and before long the couple’s daughter becomes involved with child-protection services and Billy begins a descent into a suicidal rage.
Billy realizes he has two options: He can continue his downward spiral, or he can renew himself and try to get his daughter back. He meets trainer Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) and the two form a tentative friendship.
Kurt Sutter, writer of many episodes of television’s “The Shield” and the creator of TV’s “Sons of Anarchy,” wrote the screenplay. It depicts not only the harsh world of boxing inside and outside the ring, but it also shows how challenging it can be to navigate the world of the criminal-justice system — even for those innocent of committing crime.
I love the dialogue between Tick and Billy, particularly when they discuss what haunts them about boxing and the world in general. These terrific performers bring an easy, casual feel to their delivery.
The movie belongs to Gyllenhaal, who physically becomes a fighter with his incredibly toned physique and eyes that radiate rage and physical pain. Fuqua gets right up in Gyllenhaal’s swollen, bloodied face to make his character feel even more visceral.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the score by the late and greatly missed composer James Horner. The music enhances the intensity of every scene.
“Southpaw” contains many scenes that may remind you of other boxing flicks. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a contender when it comes to solid sports films.